In 1951, Alan Freed’s Imaginary Bandstand began playing rhythm and blues and ruled the nighttime air waves, causing DJ’s across the country to follow suit. By 1954, these rhythm and blues songs spawned a new music genre called “rock and roll” after the African American euphemism for sex. In March 1955, Bill Haley and his Comets’ song, “Rock Around the Clock”, appeared in the movie Blackboard Jungle, and Rock and Roll finally broke onto the music charts.
But there was still a problem with Rock and Roll in 1954 and most of 1955: Though kids of all races listened to Rock and Roll performers of all races on the radio, kids rarely saw the performers. Most never knew if they were white, black, or Hispanic. When the kids did go to live shows, they were generally of the same race as the performers. Chuck Berry’s “Maybelline” was the perfect example, released in May 1955, white kids loved it, but white kids that went to Chuck Berry concerts, went there thinking he was white.
Richard Wayne Penniman changed that.
“Little Richard” as he was known to his friends, was inspired by Ike Turner’s Rocket 88 (arguably the first Rock and Roll song) in 1951 to get into the music business. For the next three years he struggled charting as a rhythm and blues songwriter, pianist, and singer, despite his larger than life stage presence. In 1954 he went back to his hometown of Macon, Georgia, disillusioned with the music industry, and washed dishes in the diner at the local Greyhound station. He formed a new band, which played on the weekends, and was convinced by a friend to send a demo to someone he knew at Specialty Records, based in Los Angeles. In summer of 1955, as Rock Around the Clock was on every radio, he got a call and was told to meet producer “Bumps” Blackwell at their studio in New Orleans. Specialty Records wanted a Fats Domino, who was the first R&B artist to successfully bring black music to a white audience.
On the humid and miserable afternoon of 14 September 1955, Little Richard was having a tough recording session. Nothing was working out. Out of frustration, he and Blackwell went next door to (I Shit You Not) The Dew Drop Inn, for a drink or two. Within minutes, Little Richard was playing on the bar’s piano and a crowd began to form. He got a bit wild and gave an impromptu concert right there. His music was missing a bit without his backup band, so he simulated the drum intro to his new song with the now iconic “A-wop-bop-a-loo-bop-a-lop-bop-bop!”
With just 15 minutes left in the session, he and Bumps raced back next door and recorded Tutti Frutti in just one take. That single take is the same version you hear today. Tutti Fruiti was originally a song about a large cylindrical spaceship making the difficult and uncomfortable journey to the seventh planet from the sun. He knew he had a hit, but because of the risqué material, Little Richard tried it out live before releasing it. In October 1955, he did a series of shows that got bigger and bigger, and the centerpiece was his rendition of Tutti Frutti. The kids went wild, both black and white. Little Richard was the first live black Rock and Roll act to crossover to white kids. Live Rock and Roll, music that didn’t care about the color of your skin, was born.
When Pennimen and Blackwell finally felt comfortable releasing the material in November, Tutti Frutti shot straight to number 2 on the charts, and electrified Little Richard’s career. Tutti Frutti was the first mainstream black American Rock and Roll hit to cross the ocean and chart in the UK. Tutti Frutti and Little Richard’s wild antics on stage became the template for the new genre of music about to take the world by storm: Rock and Roll. Tutti Frutti changed the music industry, and every band and producer wanted their concerts to be like Little Richard’s. The crossover was almost complete. The music industry finally had a black act that appealed to white kids live, now they just needed a white act that appealed to black kids. They found him later that autumn in Bill Halley’s opener, Elvis Presley, a fan of Little Richard. Also, that December, after hearing Little Richard and Tutti Frutti, country singer Carl Perkins wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” essentially creating the devil-may-care sub-genre of Rockabilly. Elvis Presley and Rockabilly would eventually bring the white girls en masse to the concerts and record stores. And where the girls went the bots followed. The beginning of the Golden Age of Rock and Roll was but months away.
Little Richard changed live rhythm and blues forever, and introduced it to a brand new audience. Little Richard’s concerts, where white and black kids mixed and danced to a new form of music, were ten years ahead of the Civil Rights Movement.
Little Richard broke down barriers thought incontestable just the spring before. He didn’t care about skin color, he cared about the fans. We should all be more like Little Richard.
RIP Richard Wayne Penniman
In the mid-1960s, the “Baby Boomer” generation was coming of age and like all teenagers and early 20-somethings, they didn’t understand their parents and the greater world around them. They grew up in the fifties which was an age of unparalleled peace and prosperity in the Western world. This was particularly true in the US which was spared the worst of the death and devastation caused by the Second World War. They didn’t grow up during the Great Depression, and they didn’t have to make the extraordinary sacrifices required by the Second World War. So unlike their parents they were not satisfied (see what I did there) with the orderly two bedroom, one car, 2.5 kids, baseball diamond, soda shop, 9-5 existence that their “square” parents were perfectly OK with. Teenagers found an outlet for their rebelliousness in Rock and Roll.
The Rolling Stones was a blues rock band from London who had been riding the British Invasion wave in America behind the Beatles, the Animals, and the Kinks, among others. The Stones’ problem was that most of their songs were old blues tunes sped up and given their own distinctive twist. Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham recognized singer Mick Jagger’s and lead guitarist Keith Richard’s untapped songwriting talent and creativity, but they were getting too comfortable with the status quo. In the summer of 1964, Oldham realized they were going to run out of old blues covers, and he needed to force the band to write their own music. So he locked them up in a hotel room, and wouldn’t let them out until they wrote a song. In that tiny, hot, and sweaty hotel room, Jagger and Richards wrote “As Time Goes By”. Oldham, a Casablanca fan, had them change the name to “As Tears Go By”. Since it was a ballad, something the Stones weren’t known for, Oldham had their friend Marianne Faithful record it and it peaked at No 6 on the UK charts. The Jagger/Richards songwriting duo had its first of many hits.
However, by early 1965 the Rolling Stones still hadn’t had an international breakout hit, despite the genius of the Jagger/Richards songwriting team. In May, they were on their third North American tour and their popularity was waning. It looked like the Stones were just another British Invasion band riding on the Beatles’ coattails, just another flash in the pan.
After a rowdy concert in Clearwater, Florida on 5 May 1965, Richards climbed into his hotel room bed. When he woke up the next morning, he noticed that his acoustic guitar was on the floor, and the tape recorder that he kept next to his bed, so he could immediately capture inspiration, was full. He replayed the recording, and it contained two minutes of a guitar riff and 43 minutes of his snoring. He didn’t remember playing the riff.
After some shopping, Richards took the recording to Jagger’s room, and he thought the riff would be great for some horns. Jagger and Richards spent the rest of the day writing a song around the riff. Jagger wrote lyrics poolside. While shopping, Richards had bought a Gibson Fuzzbox, which made an electric guitar sound vaguely like a saxophone. Richards incorporated the Fuzzbox in place of the horns. Later that day they got the band together with Richards playing the opening riff with the Gibson Fuzzbox in place of a saxophone. An acoustic guitar part for him was to be added later. Oldham heard the song, which Jagger named “Satisfaction”, and thought they were on to something. Ever one to strike while the iron was hot, Oldham booked flights to Chicago for their upcoming break in touring.
On 10 May 1965, at the famous Chess Records, the Rolling Stones recorded Satisfaction with Richards still playing the saxophone parts with the Gibson Fuzzbox. The band liked the version, but Oldham loved it. He demanded they release it immediately, as is. Jagger and Richards, as the writers, had the final say and declined: Jagger still wanted horns and Richards wanted an acoustic version more in line with what he found on the tape player. Oldham convinced them that since they were in America, everyone in the room should put it to a vote. Jagger and Richards reluctantly agreed and both voted “Nay”. The rest of the band, Oldham, and the sound engineer all voted “Aye”. Jagger and Richards lost, but stood by their promise. Satisfaction was to be released as soon as possible in its then current form.
Two days later, at Richard’s request, the Rolling Stones re-recorded Satisfaction in California using a Maestro FZ-1 Fuzz-Tone in place of the Gibson Fuzzbox. But by then there was no more talk of acoustic versions or horns.
On 6 June 1965, the Rolling Stones released “Satisfaction” as a single. It shot straight to the top of the charts, and stayed in the top ten an unprecedented three months. The version recorded on 12 May 1965 is the one we know today.
The Stones’ Satisfaction, with its teenage angst, sexual innuendo, and dripping sarcasm for their parents’ world, became the theme song for a generation. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction touched the soul of discontented people everywhere. Satisfaction is the total package: you can sing it, you can drink to it, you can yell it, you can rock out to it, you can protest to it, you can cover it, and you can dance to it. Keith Richard’s opening riff is instantly recognizable to all of humanity. It is the greatest rock and roll song ever and one of the songs I want played on continuous loop at my wake.
F**k the Man. \m/
Since the 1920s, the British Broadcasting Corporation had a lock on the radio airwaves in Great Britain. In the early 1960s, the cultural Marxists at the BBC outlawed Rock and Roll. In 1964, club owner and recording producer Ronan O’Rahilly was sick of the BBC refusing to play his music, so he created his own radio station. He couldn’t set it up in Great Britain because of the BBC’s state run monopoly. But there was nothing preventing him from broadcasting from international waters. O’Rahilly hired a boat, crew, and DJs. He broadcast Rock and Roll from the North Sea, always staying three miles from land and outside the jurisdiction of Her Majesty. He named his pirate radio station “Radio Caroline” after JFK’s precocious young daughter.
Ronan O’Rahilly’s Radio Caroline broadcast Rock and Roll to the culturally starved masses of the British Isles. The British Invasion brought Rock and Roll back to America, and Radio Caroline brought the British Invasion back to Britain. Though Radio Caroline was illegal to listen to, by 1965 Radio Caroline had higher ratings than all of the BBC radio stations combined. At the behest of the BBC, the British government tried to scramble O’Rahilly’s signal, steal his transmitter, arrest his DJs, sink his ship, and even seriously considered having him assassinated. But you can’t stop the signal.
In 1967, Parliament passed the “Marine, &c., Broadcasting (Offences) Act” which made it illegal for any British “citizen” to do business with Radio Caroline, which ended Radio Caroline’s ad revenue. Radio Caroline survived, but the act forced the BBC to create BBC Radio 1, its popular music station, to placate demand, lest the British have another revolution.
RIP Ronan O’Rahilly \m/
On 5 June 1956, the King was Born when Elvis shocked the world with his wild hip gyrations on the Ed Sullivan Show. The New York Times called him “a bore in a burlesque show”, and The New York Daily News called him “Elvis the Pelvis” but fuck the squares: the girls loved him, and the boys wanted to be him. When the country woke up on the 6th, Doris Day, Bing Crosby and Perry Como were surprised to find out they were no longer the music stars they were when they went to bed. Alan Freed’s Rock and Roll Dance Party went daytime national and a Philadelphia’s small afternoon music show, American Bandstand, got a new teenage host, Dick Clark, and within a month it went national. Small regional acts were soon playing across the country. Elvis, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochrane, Wanda Jackson and a new Vanguard of Cool had unfettered access to the American soul.
For the next 20 glorious months, there was no “White Music” and there was no “Black Music”, there was only Rock and Roll. It and in particular its swing dancing, wild, devil-may-care sub-genre of Rockabilly, dominated the American consciousness.
Unfortunately all good things come to an end. Jerry Lee Lewis was a national pariah after marrying his 13 year old cousin in December 1957. Elvis was drafted in March 1958. Also that year, Alan Freed, and just about every DJ in America, was caught up in the “Payola scandal” of accepting bribes for record plays. Little Richard left the music industry to pursue a life of ministry in 1958, and also that year Gene Vincent was shut down after the IRS forced him to sell everything to pay his taxes. Johnny Cash had a messy divorce from the Sun Music and started recording gospel music. His friend Carl Perkins left soon thereafter.
Not all was lost, in late 1958, four of the biggest names in Rock and Roll toured together across the Midwest. Buddy Holly was a founding member of Rock and Roll and his bespeckled appearance gave heart to millions of teenagers that they too could get laid if they played the guitar. Dion spoke straight to audiences’ needs with “The Wanderer” and “Runaround Sue”. JP Richardson, better known as The Big Bopper, was the face of Rockabilly with his anthem “Chantilly Lace”. And finally Californian Ritchie Valens, whose Spanish language “La Bamba” converted entire demographics to Rock and Roll. Their Winter Dance Party tour played to screaming crowds at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, Iowa on 2 February 1959.
The tour was having problems, not musically but logistically. The tour venues were too far apart and the bands were stuck in old buses for far too long, so long that it was affecting their set up times and performances. The weather was freezing and one of the tour buses lacked heat. Several band members were sick. Before the show at the Sun Ballroom, Holly decided to charter a plane for him and his band, the Crickets, to get to their next show at Moorhead, Minnesota. The manager of the ballroom contracted Dwyer Flying Service to fly them to Fargo, North Dakota, a short drive from Moorhead.
After the show, Richardson, who had the flu asked Holly’s bassist, Waylon Jennings, if he could have his seat, and Jennings graciously acquiesced. Valens asked Holly’s guitarist for his seat and they flipped a coin on it. Valens won. Dion was asked if he wanted the last seat on the plane, but the $36 price was exactly what his mother to rent his childhood apartment and he couldn’t “justify the indulgence”.
When Holly learned Jennings wasn’t taking the flight he joked, “Well, I hope your ol’ bus freezes up.” Jennings snarkily responded, “Well, I hope your old plane crashes”.
The comment haunted Waylon Jennings for the rest of his life.
In the snowy weather, the pilot had no stars to observe, no lights on the ground to judge his position and he couldn’t even see the horizon. He flew straight into the ground and the plane cartwheeled across a field in Clear Lake, Iowa. There were no survivors.
The Golden Age of Rock and Roll was over.
The Music died in an Iowa cornfield.
Johnny Cash’s first big hit was “Folsom Prison Blues” in 1955 and he went on to be one of the biggest names in Country music, and Rock and Roll, for the next ten years. But by the late 60s Cash’s career was on the slippery down slope. He was having an open affair with fellow performer June Carter. He was addicted to pain killers and had been arrested for trespassing and drug trafficking. He was the worst sort of live performer who routinely missed concert dates, and because of his addiction was usually too bombed out of his mind to perform when he didn’t miss. His outlaw persona was catching up with him. By the end of 1967, he was one failed album away from just becoming another casualty to the Rock and Roll lifestyle.
He earlier decided to record a live album at the prison whose name launched his career, Folsom County Prison just outside Sacramento, California. Cash had played prisons before, and had even played Folsom before, but this would be the first time he’d record a live album while doing so. This would also be the first time he would be sober for the performance. On New Year’s 1968, Cash vowed to turn his life around, if only for June and his children’s sakes. And “At Folsom Prison” would be his comeback, both professionally and personally.
“Hello, I’m Johnny Cash”. With these words, two thousand hardened inmates of Folsom County Prison jumped up to wild applause as if they were high school kids at the year’s big concert event. Cash’s clean and sober performance was his best in years. Cash ended the performance by unexpectedly playing a song “Greystone Chapel”, written by one of the inmates.
Only two reporters accompanied Cash inside the prison to cover the event because most of the media had already dismissed Cash as a has-been, and one of whom was hired by Cash to document the event for the album sleeve. They witnessed the rebirth of a star and they’re still receiving royalties for their photographs to this day. At Folsom Prison is easily Cash’s best live performance and arguably one of the best live albums ever.
At Folsom Prison was released just four months later and resurrected Johnny Cash’s career. The clean and sober Johnny Cash learned to cultivate his outlaw status without it killing him. He would eventually divorce his wife and marry June Carter. Cash would become a leading advocate for prison reform in the United States and eventually testify to Congress in 1978.
America temporarily lost its greatest invention, Rock and Roll, when Elvis Presley left for the Army and the Day the Music Died in a cornfield in Iowa. But the generation that didn’t remember the horrors and sacrifices of their parents’ generation during the Great Depression and the Second World War, the Baby Boomers, were coming of age. Primed by Chubby Checker and Motown, the Big Bang that was the British Invasion reminded America of what it had lost: Rock and Roll, the music that changed a generation.
The Monterey Pop Festival is the seminal event in the history of Rock and Roll: everything that came before it led to it, and everything’s that came after it was because of it
In late 1966, The Doors were an opening band at the Whiskey A Go Go for bigger LA acts such as the Byrds and Them (with a young Van Morrison). In January 1967, they released their self titled debut album, but it really didn’t go anywhere due to suggestive and “obscene” lyrics, drug references , and song length. But the album was a hit with the counterculture movement and the underground psychedelic scene. Their first single release off the album, “Break On Through” was a flop (!??!?!?) but the much longer “Light My Fire” kept getting radio airplay requests. However, at 7:06, it was far too long to play over the radio.
On 3 June 1967, The Doors released a shortened three minute version for use on the radio. This shorter version of Light My Fire catapulted The Doors onto the national music scene. They’d be asked to play the song on the Ed Sullivan show with adjusted lyrics for “girl, we couldn’t get much higher” The Doors agreed and even rehearsed the new line. But when the time came, Jim Morrison sang the original line on national TV, and after the show lost their contract with the producers. The Doors didn’t care – They “did Sullivan”. Light My Fire dominated the summer of 1967, the “Summer of Love”.
Like every other rock band during the British Invasion era, the band “Earth” started as a blues tribute garage rock band. But after being double booked with another band of the same name, Tony Iommi, Geezer Butler, and Ozzy Ozbourne decided to change their name to “Black Sabbath” after the Boris Karlov flick that was playing across the street from one of their rehearsals.
Black Sabbath released their eponymous debut album in early 1970. It was a commercial success but critics hated it. BS found their niche in the darker themes reminiscent of Karlov’s movies and “stupid melodies” that were quite different than the flower power and hippie music that dominated the charts. In the fall of 1970, Black Sabbath went back to the studio to record the songs that they didn’t get a chance to for their first album.
They had just two days to record and one to mix. At the end of the second day, their album “War Pigs” was finished. However, their producer said they needed another three minutes of music. Iommi quickly came up with a riff, Ozbourne some angsty and depressing lyrics, and Butler called it “Paranoid”, which Ozbourne replied, “What the f**k does that even mean?” “Paranoid” took 25 minutes to record from request to final cut.
With the “counter culture” mainstream, Black Sabbath didn’t want the anti Vietnam song War Pigs to headline the album lest it get lost in all of the other aforementioned flower power music on the charts. They decided to name it after the shortest song on the album and the one most likely to get radio time: the afterthought, Paranoid.
Paranoid released in Oct 1970 in the UK, but it’s the release in the US on 7 January 1971 that changed the world. Like before, critics hated it, and it received near zero radio time. But the generation of resentful kids who were just then coming of age and beginning to realize they missed the crazy days of the swinging late sixties that their big brothers and sisters experienced, absolutely loved it. Most of the combat troops left Vietnam, the draft was winding down, and the economy began to stagnate, so what did it all mean? The world of Paranoid provided a glimpse of the answer. (And it helped that the songs were simple to enough to inspire a new generation of band members to pick up instruments and emulate them.)
Most of Black Sabbath’s signature songs appeared on the album. These included Paranoid, War Pigs, and one fantastical story of a future traveller who saw the end of the world but was turned to metal by a magnetic field on his return. The Iron Man then brought about the very apocalypse he warned against when his people wouldn’t believe him.
And Heavy Metal was born. \m/